Except for a few small chamber works, the music of Egon Wellesz (1885-1974)
has not been well represented on compact disc, which makes these two recordings
of orchestral and piano works all the more welcome. Born in Vienna, Wellesz
studied for a while with Arnold Schoenberg and made his mark in Weimar Germany
as a composer of operas and ballets. Oxford University awarded him an honorary
doctorate in 1932; when Hitler invaded Austria six years later, Wellesz and
his family emigrated to England, where he became a fellow at Lincoln College
and lived the rest of his long life. He was also the leading authority on
Byzantine music, writing the standard book on the subject during the war
years when he was unable to compose. The first of his nine symphonies came
in 1945, when he was sixty; the last in 1971, three years before his death.
Judging from these two recordings, Wellesz's music is difficult to pin down
stylistically, which might help to account for its relative obscurity.
The most immediately accessible of the recorded pieces is Prosperos
Beschwörungen (Prospero's Spells), composed in 1934-1936
and first performed by Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic. (It was
because Wellesz went to Amsterdam to hear a subsequent performance by Walter
and the Concertgebouw that the composer was away from Austria on the day
that Hitler invaded.) This set of five miniature tone poems depicting characters
from The Tempest is replete with memorable melodies and dramatic gestures
garbed in lush orchestral colors. The final movement, Ferdinand und
Miranda, sounds like late Mahler - a gorgeous tune spinning out in long,
long lines, capped by a soft trumpet call that recalls Prospero's Spells
in the first movement. Wellesz's twelve-tone Violin Concerto, composed
in 1961 for the violinist Eduard Melkus, is less memorable. The violin part,
ably played by Andrea Duka Lowenstein, is virtuosic as all get out, but the
orchestral accompaniment sounds grey and harsh. It could have been composed
by any middling academic composer of the period.
The earlier Piano Concerto (composed in 1931) is another matter, and
another style. The rhythmic energy and neoclassical spirit of Hindemith infuse
this highly entertaining piece, as in a different way they do the delightful
atonal Divertimento for small orchestra (composed in 1969). The Pan
Classics disc is rounded off with three sets of solo piano pieces. The Drei
Skizzen of 1911 and the Triptychon of 1966 could be mistaken for
Schoenberg; the four Eklogen of 1912 sound remarkably like Ravel.
Pianist Karl-Andreas Kolly is a little stolid in the concerto, more fluid
in the solo works. Orchestral performances on both discs are very good, although
the Vienna orchestra scrambles a bit through some of Prospero's more hectic
Enormous gratitude to Orfeo and Pan Classics for letting us hear these pieces.
Now how about those symphonies . . . ?
and a review of the Pan Classics recording from David Wright
Egon Wellesz is probably best known as an academic and a musicologist. His
investigations into the 'beginnings of music' are well-known as are his studies
of Byzantine music. It may be overlooked that he was present when Mahler
was rehearsing his symphonies (which 'corrections' Mahler often had to make)
was a good training ground for young Egon who, at the age of 20, had lessons
from Arnold Schoenberg and, in fact, in 1924 wrote the first biography of
Schoenberg and the so-called twelve note serial system. Actually, the principle
of serialism can be found in Wagner and Liszt but it probably was the invention
of Joseph Mathias Hauer (1883 - 1959).
Comparisons between composers and their respective works can be odious and
the last resort of the ignorant ... but most people would claim that the
works on this disc stand somewhere between Mahler and Schoenberg and display
a Teutonic seriousness. The Piano Concerto is a strong work and very
well-written, beautifully correct and lacking all those grand empty gestures,
pomposity and long-windedness that pervaded Victorian and Edwardian concert
works by British composers. The Divertimento is slight and does not divert
much at all and its thin textures may not serve the piece well. The piano
works cover a period of over fifty years and Wellesz himself was undecided
about them. His last piano work Five Studies in Grey Op 106 (1969) seems
to me to be a personal verdict on his piano music.
The performances are good and show a great deal of insight. It is hoped that
someone may undertake a recording of some of his nine symphonies or the nine
string quartets. I hope the Piano Concerto will win friends.
There is an extensive article on the composer
by Paul Conway